Ex-dj Spreads Word Via Podcast

July 24, 2009|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,matthew.brown@baltsun.com

OAKLAND -- Add the attendance from the two services at St. Matthew's in Oakland and the one at St. John's in Deer Park, and the Rev. Chip Lee is fortunate if he preaches to 100 souls on a Sunday.

But the former disc jockey-turned-Episcopal priest has hit on another way to reach the faithful.

Once a week or so, Lee settles into the professional recording studio in his house here at the far end of the Maryland panhandle, cues the New Age sound of an American Indian flutist and, in a velvety baritone smoothed by 30 years in radio, begins to read from the Book of Common Prayer.

The podcasts he produces - of Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer and the end-of-the-day prayer called Compline - have expanded Lee's ministry from the wooded mountains of Maryland's western extreme to a global congregation. This spring, the four-year-old effort claimed 50,000 downloads a month, from Anglicans on every continent and Christians of every stripe. And the number continues to grow.

The use of the Internet to spread faith is as old as the World Wide Web itself. But Lee and the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland believe his are the only daily audio readings from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer available online, and a Google search appears to back them up.

The installments of prayers and scripture passages known collectively as the Daily Office have found a particular following among the U.S. military, with chaplains and lay members accessing the 15- to 20-minute offerings from Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond.

"It is truly a wonderful contribution to our troops," Navy Chaplain Mark S. Winward e-mailed Lee after finding the podcast. "May God richly bless you and your parish for your outreach."

The 61-year-old Lee describes the endeavor as a case of "you can take the boy out of radio, but you can't take the radio out of the boy." A lifelong Episcopalian, he began his broadcasting career at the age of 16, when he would leave his high school in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., walk across the street to the local radio station and read the news.

He spent the next three decades on the air, spinning rock and adult contemporary records from Syracuse to Seattle before finally heeding the call to the ministry and entering the seminary in 1986. He landed in Western Maryland six years later.

Lee is the only Episcopal pastor in Garrett County, the state's largest by area, where he is responsible for St. Matthew's, St. John's and the seasonal Log Church in Altamont, and their associated Sunday school, soup kitchen, food pantry and other ministries. He came up with the idea of adding the podcasts to his responsibilities in 2005 "just kind of on a whim."

"I have actually sat down and tried to read the Daily Office daily, and no thank you, it's not my cup of tea," he says. "I am an audio and video person. I like to hear things, I like to see things. That's how I intake information."

The Book of Common Prayer sets out a two-year cycle of daily readings for morning, midday, evening and night. Sunday's Morning Prayer, for example, combines a confession, prayers and petitions with passages from First Book of Samuel, the Gospel of Matthew and the Letter of Paul to the Romans. Lee sets these to the meditative flute music of R. Carlos Nokai; the finished product is available both on epis copalchurchingarrettcounty.org and through iTunes.

Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, credits the podcasts with "helping many experience prayer in a new way."

"Chip's ministry carries the simple beauty of our Prayer Book to those who are beyond the walls of our churches," he writes in an e-mail. He says the podcasts "offer an opportunity to step away from the ceaseless activity of daily life; they are a refreshing break for the soul."

Nancy Rohe was serving at the Special Warfare Center Detachment at Little Creek in Norfolk, Va., when she discovered Morning Prayer on iTunes. A recent convert to Episcopalianism, she says Lee helped her to understand the Daily Office.

"I was kind of stumbling along as I was doing it, and then when I found the podcast, it literally taught me the Morning Office, by listening to that every day," she says.

Now retired from the Navy, Rohe has entered seminary in Austin, Texas, to prepare for the priesthood. She has Morning Prayer downloaded automatically into her iPod and listens to it daily.

"It's just an awesome, awesome podcast," she says. "I just love it."

Over the last 30 years, the Rev. Mark Gatza, priest in charge at Emanuel Church in Bel Air, has experienced the Daily Office in a variety of formats.

"What's challenging is to find ways to keep it interesting and keep my attention span," he says. "When I first heard that Chip was doing this, I thought there were a couple of advantages to any other way.

"No. 1, he's got that great radio voice," Gatza says. "No question, that's part of it.

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